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Tracking Away from Worry

Psychologist/author Tamar Chansky ’84 shows how to surmount the roadblocks that anxiety throws in our path.

By Robert Strauss

feature_chansky_MG_3457.JPGIt is the rare person who has avoided anxious moments. Those moments could be severe, but they could also be simple, yet the purpose of life is not to dwell on them, says psychologist Tamar Chansky ’84. Chansky has authored four books on the topic, the latest being her most inclusive: Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want.

She paints a visual image of a typical anxious moment. “There is a machine at the shopping mall nearby that is a tornado simulator. You pay two dollars to go into this phone booth kind of machine. You get gale-force winds in a tiny box, and then you come out and look a mess. Then you go on.”

“And I think that is what worry and anxiety are like,” says Chansky. “You sort of step into this box. It throws you around, and you are never going to solve a problem in there. It is only when you get out of that box and clean yourself up and you start thinking, ‘Worry isn’t the way. Worry is in the way.’ We never learn anything from worry. We can quiet it down, and that is where the action starts.”

Chansky’s specialty in her private practice in Plymouth Meeting, just outside of Philadelphia, is anxiety. She uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a discipline she says is goal oriented, rooted in the present, and buttressed by lots of empirical research. Therefore, it works well with anxiety and its related afflictions, like substance abuse, eating disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

In her practice, she sees more acute problems—at the extreme, people who really cannot function because of their anxieties. She came to realize that the CBT principles she was using for those patients could be translated to the more-general public.

“I think I felt really compelled to write because I was hearing this knowledge I was accumulating from my patients,” she says. There were principles that anyone could use, and she felt an obligation to share them more widely. “Due to the metaphors that I had developed in session with patients, I felt the message could be simpler and more inviting.

“In this book, there are four steps I outline, and in each step I say, ‘You already know how to do this.’ I want people to feel welcome and confident to adopt these strategies in their lives. I wanted it to be familiar so that they wouldn’t be afraid to try.”

Chansky is not afraid to use examples of anxiety and its aftermath in her own life, especially in a humorous way. She writes about how she, husband Phillip Stern ’84, and their daughters, Meredith, 19, and Raia, 10, were on a trip in Italy, and the GPS in the rental car was screaming that they had taken a wrong turn and had to go back where they began. Her husband turned the GPS off, but, in fact, it was right. For a while, there was tension in the car, but long term, the anxiety of being on the wrong trail was resolved; it was a lesson nonetheless.

“If we can turn around, so to speak, as soon as possible, and get back on our track, then maybe we can not be detoured by anxiety,” says Chansky. “That is what I am trying to accomplish for people. If you can read those symbols, those signs, quickly, and shorten the trip worry takes you on, how differently life would go.”
Chansky has no qualms about using what she has learned in her practice, primarily from working with children, in the treatment of adult anxiety.

“Different monsters, but the same setup,” she says. However, sometimes it is easier for children, even when they seem more vulnerable, to let go of their anxieties than adults. “Kids have fewer layers. They are more eager to change, so they tend to change faster.”

When she was a kid, and even into college, Chansky was not really thinking of a career in psychology. She grew up in Swarthmore and graduated from Swarthmore High School in 1980, viewing from not-so-afar those who populated the campus in the activist 1970s. Her parents are retired now, but her father was an educational psychologist and statistician, and her mother was a nurse, eventually working in the College infirmary.

“I have to admit, I thought the students at Swarthmore were kind of strange,” says Chansky. “They didn’t wear shoes in the winter. They wore sandals, and maybe I thought they were weird.” She went to Temple University first to study English literature and writing, then transferred to Swarthmore after two years, having changed her view a bit about Swarthmore students.

“I began to see the gray areas and that maybe I was like those kids,” she says. “What made Swarthmore inviting to me was how comfortable people were in questioning things, in not knowing things. I often tell my patients, I didn’t learn until I went to Swarthmore that it was OK not to know something—and even better to ask.”

Chansky switched to psychology because, while writing, she always was thinking about how to help people, especially out of their doldrums, and especially children. She stuck near her hometown—getting advanced degrees at Temple and the University of Pennsylvania (where daughter Meredith is now a freshman).

Her studies quickly drew her to cognitive therapy, developed by Aaron Beck, professor emeritus in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Tamar really is the expert on the use of CBT for kids with anxiety, and her books on the topic are important,” says Judith Beck, Aaron’s daughter and the president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. “She has an excellent understanding of why it is kids get anxious and how they view themselves.

“She writes in a very clear, straightforward, practical way,” says Beck. “Parents who are reading the books have a good sense of what they need to do.”

Chansky’s mode in her books is to show that what the anxious person perceives is not what is actually happening. Too often, he or she sees doom and gloom, when the situation is just one of passage—a metaphorical cloud overhead may only mean one should find an umbrella, not imagine a hurricane.

“If you change the thought, then you change the feeling and the behavior,” says Chansky. “My angle on this is to creatively help people see their anxieties in a less threatening way. It is just that detour—turn around.”

Chansky relieves any potential personal stresses “many days of the week” by taking a walk in the Wissahickon Woods near her Chestnut Hill house. Her greatest anxiety is cooking, “but I am working on it.” And her greatest joy is being with her family, especially for long dinners.

“A lot of times, people will talk about how their kids won’t sit for dinner for more than five, 10 minutes. Our dinners are an hour, and we have to cut ourselves off. We are a family of talkers,” she says, noting that connecting with others may just be the best kind of anxiety therapy.

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